Voices from SACO - Eduardo Unda-Sanzana
curated by Daniela Veneri
“I see that when after a couple of months you can walk in an exhibition room in the city center and you see that there is something related to our work that is seen from different eyes, it has a value that it is very difficult to measure.” - Eduardo Unda-Sanzana
Eduardo, which of the projects that you are currently working on excite you most and why?
There are two main projects that I am focusing on right now. One of those is more related to science and technology, the other is more related to outreach. The first project investigates what is happening with the new megaconstellations of internet satellites worldwide: those satellites have the potential to bring a huge benefit for humanity, by providing very cheap connectivity for various areas, but the cost of that in terms of observation of the sky and appreciation of the sky is that they may ruin portions of it. There may be parts of the sky in which you are currently used to contemplate the stars, and what could happen now is that you may regularly observe strips of lights. Those lights are reflections of the Sun on those satellites as they move through the sky, and that could become a problem for science. We are trying to quantify that and, if our fears are confirmed, we will try to provide technological solutions to that. This is one of the things I am doing, and I am collaborating with some research groups locally and internationally.
The second project is related to our region, to outreach and basically the idea is that there is an area in the region in Antofagasta where you will have a large concentration of telescopes or, more generally, of astronomical equipment and capabilities. It is an area close to Paranal, where the VLT telescope is, and where in the future there is going to be also the ELT and several other telescopes. I have been trying to encourage the authorities in the region of Antofagasta to use this opportunity to start a new center of interpretation of astronomy, open to tourist visitors and to schoolchildren that will get to this part of the region and will receive help to understand the natural qualities of this site and also what are the goals of the different projects under development there. If successful, this is going to be a large project, not only in terms of investments but in the sense of becoming a new landmark for connecting people with the observation of the sky and with understanding why we promote so much the interest of astronomy in Chile.
What values and principles guide you in your work?
Recently I was in charge of organizing a large scientific meeting of astronomers, attracting people from all over the continent and from other continents as well. In the process of organizing this I led a discussion with the rest of my team about the values that would guide our work for that meeting. It was a very good exercise because those values are generally applicable, they are not restricted to that meeting. It was a good exercise of analyzing what we believe in, and I think that they are a good summary of what I try to do generally in my work. They are excellency, in the sense of trying to do things as best as humanly possible; integrity, as a way to express that ethical considerations will always be a key aspect of what I do; then diversity, in the sense of understanding that we live in a complex and diverse society with many different voices, we are all contributing to some common human efforts and need to have mutual respect for what we do, we need to have our space to make our contribution. Then sustainability, and this is important, because we do not want to exhaust the resources of the planet, the resources related to whatever we do, in this generation; we need to keep things going for the rest of humanity, not just in our time but also for the future. Of course there may be some other values but these are possibly the most important ones. I realize that even when I am not actively asking myself what are the values that are guiding me today, when I think about that, after a while I see that those are the values that intuitively I have been trying to apply and reinforce in my work.
What are your most important objectives as a scientist?
As a scientist there are several opportunities that I have in front of me, even the particular time in which I am living, and also the particular country and region in which I am living. I think that, speaking from a purely-scientific position, I want to be one of the people contributing to the protection of the sky, as I was explaining before with this idea of studying the effect of these new satellites, but also be one of the researchers involved in the potential discovery of life outside our planet, in other worlds. In particular, I am confident that, if we get the scientific certainty about that, such certainty will come from data acquired in this region, because of the machines that are going to be installed here in the following years. It is a singular opportunity in history to be in the right place in the right time, being able to contribute to an effort that is probably going to change how humanity perceives life completely.
A second objective, more related to society, is that people really appreciate the power of science to improve the quality of life of human beings everywhere. Many times it is frustrating to find scepticism in relation to the work of astronomers or scientists in general; to hear many conspiracy theories around scientific activities. When you are part of the scientific community and you are really trying to improve things for everybody, it feels bad to find this disconnection with society. This is heavily related with the perception of science, so this has moved me to try to change that and to try to be in constant connection with society as much as I can. I offer to go to schools regularly, to write for newspapers, and so on, because I see that this kind of things can help change how people see science. I will be very happy if, when I retire, my evaluation of how people perceive science or relate to the work of scientists has changed in a significant way.
How did you become involved in SACO? How does it relate to your objectives?
This is strongly related to the second objective above. When I did my PhD, between 1999 and 2005, I studied for a number of years in England, and I observed that it was not uncommon to find scientific institutions receiving artists for residences. The idea was to give them an opportunity to view the things we do, to connect with scientific knowledge, with scientific techniques; with all things that normally would be closed to people not related to science such as closely observing experiments. I realized that very interesting artistic products were the product of these residences, and at the same time I saw that there was also an advantage for a lot of scientists to see their own work through the work of a person who was not a scientist, to see the kind of inspiration that one’s work can provide to a person who is not working in science. I have been trying to do these things in one way or another since 2005, when I started working here in Antofagasta, but I could not find the right allies.
Some years ago I became impressed by SACO and ISLA, and specially for the work of Dagmara and her collaborators. I attended several of their exhibitions and once I was invited to a forum to talk about the relation between science and art. I was invited as a scientist but I had also some experience in theatre, so people saw that I could speak from the experience of trying to do art even when being a scientist. The conversation was very interesting, and at the end of that I used the opportunity to mention that I had this idea of starting residencies in scientific institutions, that if people were interested they could approach me. Several people expressed interest but for a couple of years after that it came to nothing; then we discussed it with Dagmara, and we decided to do it. She could support this initiative on her side with the ISLA infrastructure, so people would have accommodation, and they could find some ways to support the artists if I was able to provide some kind of support and keep the interaction with the observatories and with scientists. It sounded perfect, so we discussed this in formal terms, reached an agreement, and started the first residency in 2019. It was really successful so I am interested in keeping this going forward in the future.
What worked well in this interaction, what elements make you believe that the residency was successful?
My evaluation comes from the fact that I was uncertain whether this residency would be interesting for both the artist and my colleagues, or whether it was just my crazy idea... whether at the end the scientists would become interested in interacting with the artist, whether they would visit the art exhibition, etc. It worked very well on both sides. I followed up with this regularly, so pretty much everybody in the astronomic center presented their work in some way or another to the artist, and the artist had an opportunity to choose in which topics she wanted to dig deeper, so she could keep talking with one or two people. Then the artist had a very exciting idea of trying to reimagine much of what we do as a project focused on the exploration of Mars (which looks very similar to the Atacama Desert) and in the development of the technology to do that. The artist presented the outcomes of this and everybody was enthusiastic. She printed the artworks with our machines, so we used the resources of astroengineering to bring to life artistic material, which was a new thing for us, and eventually what we did with that was definitely central for the exhibition. Everybody attended the final exhibition, so I asked all the people involved if they were happy to keep this project going on and they agreed. Everybody saw that it was a very interesting experience, that they wanted to have this contact with different perspectives about our work and we decided to continue.
What do you like most of this project?
What I like most of the collaboration between SACO and the Center of Astronomy, is the fact that at the end of the artistic residency we are going to see a concrete artistic production that is related to our astronomical work. I see that even if that did not happen, I would still be interested in giving access to the astronomy center to the visiting artists, but I see that when after a couple of months you can walk in an exhibition room in the city center and you see that there is something related to our work that is seen from different eyes, it has a value that it is very difficult to measure. It motivates a different kind of conversation with my colleagues, and that is very attractive for me. At a personal level, I also think it has been very enriching having to discuss things with the team of SACO and all the visiting artists that are not coming to the astronomy center but who are coming to visit Dagmara, and being involved in other events. I had this unique opportunity to be with those people and having those kinds of conversation was very enriching at a personal level, beyond the institutional level of the collaboration.
What kind of impact do you see emerging from SACO?
I think that a very important impact of SACO is to subvert the idea that art in general is an old fashioned thing that is disconnected to what is going on in society, and that it consists of things that are going to be very isolated, to exist only in some closed room. SACO uses spaces and rooms that normally people would see for many different other reasons, for tourism, for their daily life, for paperwork, for doing business, because they are on the streets, on touristic venues, they are on different cultural centers, many times easily reachable for people so you can just stumble upon SACO, you just walk on the streets and you may find an artistic work and see that you are living in the middle of art for some days. This makes people feel that art is part of life. This, is maybe one of the most important results of SACO.
One particularly striking example for me took place in 2019. In Antofagasta there has been an increasing phenomenon of immigration from other Latin-American countries, so you are used to having foreign people waiting in line in front of the office of immigration to ask for visas and other paperwork, so this has become part of the social landscape. In some cases people arrive so early in the morning, when it's cold, and some of them are sleepy, that they start to set up some small tents so to have some protection. There was an artist that came to Antofagasta last year that set up tents with different colors containing dummies, so you would see legs coming out from the tents, and people were looking at this from afar thinking that they were immigrants waiting for something, and only when they went closer they realised that it was an artistic setting. These lines were everywhere and then the artistic work left but the real lines of tents with people within stayed. Then you start thinking whether this has been transformed into an artwork in some way. The perception of people of something that for them may be very annoying, as not everybody likes immigrants, becomes challenged when you say, look, I am going to show you this as a work of art: how are you going to relate with this now? That is a very interesting challenge, a constant challenge that SACO presents to society.
What are the opportunities and challenges that your local context offers?
I see that the opportunities for what I do are very clear. I live in the region of the world where the largest telescopes are being built. It's a region in which astronomy will be at the center of top level collaborations and have access to some of the best scientists in the world for discussions, institutional collaborations or even individual collaborations. This will increase the chances, to get funding for all projects dealing with Astronomy, not only for research but for education, tourism, development of technologies, or just for the enjoyment of it. At some point in the negotiations with incoming international observatories Chile asks for contributions for the development of the country but also for the development of the host region. Then you can propose projects and get them funded so I see that the opportunities are out there, and we need to manage these opportunities in a wise and responsible way to get some really concrete development outcomes out of that.
On the other hand, I see that the main challenge we are facing today is that Chile is, even now, a very centralized country, by which I mean that most of the important things always happen in Santiago, the capital of the country. Living in a region that is not Santiago means that you are basically out of all key discussions, unless that you try to get involved at a huge cost for you. A clear example of this can be seen in the case of ESO. ESO has its main observing facilities here, in Paranal: the VLT is here. It also manages a part of ALMA. Here, in the region of Antofagasta, ESO is building the ELT, the largest project in the world. However, if you look for the headquarters of ESO you will find that they are in Santiago. This of course has an impact in the relation with ESO, because, if we need to talk with the guy who is the head of ESO and if you live in Santiago, your relation is completely different than when you need to talk with the same guy and you live in Antofagasta. Currently things are a little better thanks to online communications, thanks to the widespread use of the Internet. I see that the last 5 or 10 years have really helped Chile change in a positive direction, with more integration in the country, but even now many things are not discussed online, the most important things are discussed around a physical table in some office and many times the invitations to be present in a physical meeting are received one day for a meeting happening the next day. If you live in Antofagasta you just cannot be there.
It is common that many things are discussed in Santiago between the central government and the heads of the international observatories and there are no regional representatives there. This is a strange thing, and is one of the reasons why, even with the great potential for astronomy, common citizens are still not very enthusiastic about astronomy in Antofagasta, and that is a reality we need to face. They perceive astronomy as a thing which is remote and not really connected to them, that even if you really want to learn about astronomy, it is paradoxical but you need to go first to Santiago because the main companies and observatories that are working in the region of Antofagasta have funded outreach museums in Santiago and not here in Antofagasta. This is again a very strange thing, something which produces much perplexity, and some of us are really putting a large effort in trying to change that, in working with the region and the authorities to get things to be different, but I know that this is a long-term process. This is clearly our main challenge for anything we want to do.
In your experience, what is most important when involving different stakeholders in the creation of a common project?
I think that a key element of success is to try to have a clear vision so that you can show you know what to do, but also to keep this vision flexible so as to be open to integrate the best resources and best compatible visions of your collaborators; they do not want to be your employees, they want to be your collaborators, so they want to contribute and also to be satisfied with the things they put in the work.
For example, when involving my colleagues, as the director of the center I must explore who is interested in participating in the artistic residency, how much and to what limit they want to be involved. They may just want to talk with the artists, or they may want to go with the artists to observatories, or they may want to teach something to them, to give them access to their equipment, to their documents, so I need to really learn what they are expecting from the collaboration, and then I try to adapt what they offer to what I know people are going to experience while participating in this project. This is true on the side of the artists as well; it is what we did last year. Our first conversations were all about expectations, and once I was aware of the expectations I could help the artists trace a path forward, because I already knew what colleagues would be more approachable and for what. I think that this is very important, to really communicate well, to talk with the people involved, to not be rigid in what you are trying to do, but also to not abandon what you are trying to do, which means to have a clear vision but a vision which can be flexible so as to involve people as long as they are excited with the idea and want to contribute to it.
What do you see emerging at the intersection of arts and science?
In general I think that a mutual acknowledgment of the potentialities of each field would help both disciplines, art and science, to achieve their maximum potential. To give you an example, I know that Dagmara likes to work with different media and materials for her work, but she may not know all the things that are possible with some materials, because many of the techniques to work with them are restricted to what happens in some scientific labs, and if she does not interact with scientists she might live her whole life unaware of some phenomenon that could be useful or inspiring for her work and for what she wants to express.
Science has a strong foot in what we understand as an objective reality, and I know this is a hard topic when talking with an artist, but I think that in several aspects of society having this scientific perspective is extremely useful because it shows you the most effective path to achieve something. For example, today we are talking about the new virus (SARS-CoV-2) spreading worldwide, and we can do so involving different aspects of human culture, but probably the most effective decisions to contain and control it will be made by following scientific guidelines.
I think that this constant communication and collaboration is enriching for artists trying to achieve the full potential of everything they have at their disposal and available to them, to help them express what they want to express. For scientists this is also very interesting because art has an emotional power that science many times does not. It's common that in science, when you are so passionate about what you are doing and you know that it is very important, you offer a talk that not many people attend to and, even among people who will go, not many of them will follow what you are saying and or may not very interested even if they are following you correctly. I am sure that for many scientists this is frustrating because you are in front of something that you know is very valuable, and that you are sure that people probably would benefit a lot from knowing more about it, but you do not have the power to reach these people and you see with professional envy that artists normally have that power.
It is likely that having collaborations between art and science will have scientists also to increase their emotional palette, the emotional resources at their disposal to help them reach broader audiences, either by themselves or in collaboration with somebody who may be more skillful in reaching those audiences. I think that part of that is what is happening today with these artistic residences: that we are reaching other publics, people different from the public who goes to scientific talks, and we are letting them, in indirect ways, to know what we are doing and, many times, what we are feeling while we are doing our work. I think that this intersection between art and science is beneficial in these two different ways, for both artists and scientists in the end. This is a main topic for me: if we want to benefit society as a whole, the different powers that art and science have are both needed for improving the quality of life of society.
How can arts and culture make an effective social contribution today?
This is strongly related to what I was saying in my previous answer, because what I see as the result of that intersection between art and science is also what I see as the most desirable outcome in terms of making an effective contribution.
This is not just an intellectual exercise that is done to feed our own egos. I mean: scientists have a social responsibility, and the same is also valid for art. Most scientific projects are funded by citizens, we are not receiving funds from private corporations that tell us what to do. In astronomy, I receive a lot of money from the Chilean government, and if you track the sources of the money you see that they come mostly from taxes, so I need to give something back to society, not just feeling important in my office because I am doing very important stuff... I need people to see that I am returning to them what they are making possible for me to do. This is why building a bridge between the scientific activity and the interests of the general public are so important. I would feel like cheating society if I was not doing that. Many times building this bridge is important not just because I think that people should hear me to know about my work because I consider it relevant, but because often people will believe things that will guide their lives and these things might not be correct. And who knows? In some topics I may be one of the few people that are able to actually explain things to them.
I can give you an example of this: Chile is a seismic country; this means that there are earthquakes all the time, and of course this is a matter of serious concern for people who want to ensure their safety, the safety of their families and of their investments. There was a very large earthquake back in 2010, one of the largest earthquakes we have had, and after the earthquake happened many people claimed that they had the power to predict when the next earthquake was going to happen, and I do not mean mystic power but some sort of scientific power. They were claiming, for example, that they would correlate the activity of the Sun with earthquakes on Earth, or with the activity of the Moon or whatever, and people were planning their lives believing in those guys, trusting the safety of their families based on those predictions. Sometimes they were using their savings by buying properties or accumulating things for the next earthquake that this person was announcing in TV or in social networks, and that was one of those times when scientists had the responsibility of going out and saying look, this is a fraud, and if you follow this you will probably ruin economically your family.
That was also one of those moments in time when you may feel really frustrated because of the difficulty to reach as many people as you want, because it was important for everybody to know the reality of things. That's one of those cases when you look at the art field, you look at how effective art may be in reaching people in a non intellectual way, in an emotional way, and you see that those fraudsters were using emotions to engage people while you only have your rational arguments: Then you, as a scientist, start wondering about analysing who is better at using emotions, because we need to counterbalance this kind of dynamic. That story more or less ended after several years in which eventually people got exhausted and not believing too much in what these other guys were claiming, but there were several years, I think five or six years, in which they were really scaring people to blindly follow their predictions.
Those kinds of things are going to happen again and again and again, as long as we are disconnected from emotions and as long as emotion does not really impregnate the communication of science. It is sadly common to find that the people with the higher emotional power to reach society are far from science and even to realize that they do not trust science too much... so their power is not used to become a voice of sanity in some cases. I think that acting on this disconnection could be a really effective contribution for society in the future.
If you were able to change one or two things of the way the arts and culture system relates to the expanded social field and to science, what things do you think would create the most value and benefit for all?
It's difficult for me to talk about what you call the arts and culture system, because I do not know it in detail, but I can explain what I observe and perceive potentially related to that. Something which always bothered me when I was studying in the university, when I started studying engineering, which is my first degree, is that people from Humanities and people from Engineering and Science in general more or less perceived each other as rivals. That bothered me all the time, and probably I was one of the very few people that would be constantly crossing borders.
I mean, I was studying engineering and I signed up for a couple of artistic topics at the university as part of the optional courses, I was constantly going to the library in humanities, most of my friends were psychologists... but what I describe was very uncommon. I could see this in my interactions with my psychologist friends: they were open to talking with me but in general they perceived engineering and sciences as more or less the enemies; they needed to remark the clear difference that they had a broader view of the world, that they were not restricted to rationality but that they could see the world also in some other ways. Engineers and scientists many times were describing humanities, and I am reporting the exact words, “as a jungle”, where you can easily get lost and go nowhere.
These mutual suspicions make people more or less proud of staying apart, because you would do better in your own way, and I saw that as a reason for not achieving even greater things in the end. Both sides were missing a lot. I would really like to see that change, and I believe that some level of education should be common, that people studying engineering and science should know some history and philosophy as part of their training, and that people in humanities, no matter what is your specialty, should know the basic understanding of the world from a scientific point of view. For scientists and engineers, that would mean to have a better understanding of what is the purpose of what they are doing, why and when it fits in the history of humanity to try to achieve some goals, and this is very important for engineers and scientists to really understand. For people from humanities in general, and more specifically for people from arts, learning some tools to differentiate when something is based on data and objective reality and when it is not, it would be really useful; otherwise you can be very vulnerable to somebody who speaks your language but that is really trying to scam you.
This could also apply to the field of politics. When our politicians want to be elected they are naturally going to make promises... but these promises need to be grounded in the real world, in the likely effect of your decisions in the environment, in health, in education and so on. This makes all the difference between these being just empty words and being something that this person is going to achieve over the years, this is where scientists and engineers come to your help, because they can give you tools to evaluate whether that is possible, and If you do not have that and just believe in charisma you may be in a very fragile position. At the same time, if scientists and engineers do not have a conscience of context, of their role in history and of their role in society, the same politicians could easily manipulate scientists and engineers, with all the power they have, to do terrible things just by funding things. I think that there has been a mutual influence that has been developing over the years but too slowly.
What is happening is that we are having too quickly too much power in our hands, a potential to destroy the environment, for instance, which would have been just a fiction two hundreds years ago and now it's a reality. This gives a different flavour to be a scientist or an engineer today, but at the end of the day everybody is electing politicians, not just scientists and engineers, and this is why everybody should have the scientific perspective at their disposal.
At this very moment there is a public health crisis spreading all over the world and educational programs, schools, cultural centers, museums, exhibitions, arts and cultural sites, are closing the doors in many countries. How is this affecting your projects?
After the understandable initial shock we are trying to take this as an opportunity to innovate. Our outreach talks that were classically given in a room for some tens of people now can potentially reach many hundreds, use digital interactive resources and be preserved for the future. The residences we talked about may also happen in an online, remote format, perhaps going as far as integrating virtual reality experiences in it. One crazy idea I suggested to the artist who will participate in the residence with us this year is that we may consider jointly exploring another world (e.g. the Moon or Mars) in a virtual reality setting and see what happens. However, this is also giving us an important perspective to keep in mind. The use of online resources boldly highlights the difference between people who have this as part of their daily life and people who not only do not have internet access but who may not even have a place to live or some basic privacy at home. These differences are problematic when you ask everybody to cooperate with the control of the disease because you are not asking the same level of effort to everybody and, in fact, you are asking more from the people who have less. I think that looking at the future with optimism it may happen that an enrichment of universal human rights is born of the reflections we are all having about these issues during the current crisis.
What is your feeling about how this emergency can influence our approach to experiencing, producing and sharing the arts?
I think that the current limitations are giving us all a chance to run experiments which, otherwise, could have taken decades to happen. Some months ago it would have been unforeseeable the level of access we have today to filmed theater and opera, for example, or to how frequent it has become to listen to a singer performing from their living room and even being able to talk with them. This has been born as an emergency reaction to the crisis in order to help people resist the isolation and also to give artists a chance to stay relevant in people’s minds. However, unless this becomes some sort of industry the artistic activity will not be sustainable if the crisis lasts too long. Thus my hope is that in the short term we will find ways to make the digital connections with art sustainable and that in the long term the good aspects of this new dynamic will survive.
I hope that in the future we will regularly have some alternative online access to art when physically reaching it is not possible (due to distance, resources, health, or who knows what other future reason I cannot think of now). Perhaps in the future the online interaction with artists will be more common and not reserved just to VIP attendants to a concert who were able to pay for a meet-and-greet experience. I think that in the long run, as long as we remain human beings with all our senses active, the live experience will still reign, but perhaps this crisis will make the live experience grow some “socially-responsible digital tentacles” that may provide access to part of the experience to vast segments of society that would have had no way to have access to that experience at all otherwise.
Is there anything important for you to mention that I did not ask you?
There are in general in Chile some regions, but in particular in the region of Antofagasta, where there is the interest to make sure that the knowledge and visions of indigenous people will not get lost in the middle of the progress, and those people live in some cases close to the sites of the observatories. That's the case of ALMA and several projects of what is called the Atacama Park (Parque Astonómico Atacama) area. This introduces some influence in how things are developed in those projects: For instance, they need to have some regular interactions with representatives of those communities; they create a small fund to support the projects of development of these indigenous communities; in some cases they try to incorporate some elements of indigenous culture in the projects.
Just to give an example, the telescopes in Paranal bear Mapuche names (Mapuche are indigenous people of the South) and those names were proposed by some schoolchildren years ago. I am not an expert on this, but I think that this plays a role and some people who approach the study of the observatories in relation to society in Chile are interested in investigating more deeply this dynamic of having some of the most advanced technology in the world next to some of the poorest and more vulnerable communities. This may also have something to do with art and with what is happening with indigenous art, and I think that there may be some elements for thought in the future about the interaction of science and art in the region.
Can you think of three or five keywords that express your impressions and feelings about our conversation?
If I were filing this conversation in an imaginary folder I would use the keywords art, society, science, interaction, and potential.
Eduardo Unda-Sanzana was born in Concepción, Chile (1974). He studied Chemical Engineering and did his MSc in Science, minor in Physics, at the Universidad de Concepción. Thanks to a PPARC-Andes studentship he did his PhD in Astronomy at the University of Southampton (UK). After returning to Chile, he directed the Paranal-UCN Outreach Center for 5 years in Antofagasta. Since 2012 he is the Director of the Centro de Astronomía of the Universidad de Antofagasta. He is responsible for developing Ckoirama, the first Chilean-state owned observatory under the northern Chilean skies, as well as the first Center of Astroengineering in the north of the country. Eduardo has a keen interest in science outreach and in the relation between science and art, having directed several projects related to public communication of science in the Region of Antofagasta, often in collaboration with local artists.